CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT
He would come to her bed tonight.
Cassia trembled with nervous tension at the thought of it. Since Edwin’s return, they had slept apart. She had asked it of him, feigning illness, and he had allowed her to sleep alone. But tonight, while they ate supper, she knew from the way he looked at her that he would wait no longer. He was her husband, and he had a right to share her bed and take pleasure in it whenever he desired. And he desired her tonight.
But she was sickened by the thought of being with him. And she was sickened by the feeling of guilt that would not leave her.
Tonight, she would betray the man she loved…and that man was not her husband. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the devastation she had seen in Guy’s expression. He had never declared himself in love with her, but it was clear to her that whatever he felt for her, it was deep. Whether it was love or not, his distress had not been concealed, expressed in such a bold way that she hated herself for hurting him so. She wept silently, covering her mouth, fearful that Edwin would hear her. He would be coming to her at any moment, joining her in the loft that they would share until their departure to France. She knew she had to calm herself, but her misery overwhelmed her for quite some time. She was thankful to God that Edwin did not come until quite late. By then, she had regained her composure. But she could not hide the unhappiness that showed in her face. As Edwin came up into the loft, she tried to turn her head away so he could not see her. But he was too perceptive, it seemed. He sat near her, untying his shirt. She could feel him staring at her.
“Cassia,” he said after a time, “Tell me what troubles you.”
She tried to keep her voice calm. “I am not troubled.”
If only you would go, she thought. God in heaven, grant me mercy.
“You have hardly spoken since my return. And I see the unhappiness in your eyes. I am your husband, and if there is something wrong, you should confide in me.”
Her words were insistent. “It is nothing, husband. Nothing at all.”
Darkness, she said to herself. If I am to endure this, I will have darkness.
Quickly, she blew out the candle. She could not bear the thought of looking into his eyes, or having him look into hers, seeing the evidence of her broken heart. It would be difficult enough to give herself to a man she no longer had feelings for. She could only pray that it would be over quickly.
She could hear him removing his boots, and then his belt. Closing her eyes, she tried to numb herself in preparation, and she kept herself turned away from him. It was dark, but she swore she could sense him watching her. He was trying to be affectionate as he touched her. His hands did not act in a rough or demanding way, as some men might have done after being so long away from their mate. His touch was gentle, lingering in places as he explored her body – and every moment was a torment. His kisses never progressed beyond being tender, but a part of her wished he would be cruel in some way if it meant he would be done with her sooner. If he was cruel, at least she would have reason to despise him. But he was trying so earnestly to be loving. She could feel his desire for her. Despite her lack of passion, his breathing was growing erratic as he pressed his body against hers. His hands moved up and down her legs, and then he grasped her hips. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt a discomfort when he took her at last. She felt no pleasure. There were no waves of wild, intense ecstasy as she had known in Guy’s arms. If Edwin noticed her discomfort, he gave no sign of it. Clearly, he was finding much satisfaction in the act, moving in and out of her many times, uttering sounds of great pleasure. When at last he finished, her self-control broke. Tears spilled backwards down her face as she stared up, and a tiny sob escaped her. It was too late to hope that he had not heard. He rested against her for a moment, catching his breath. He lifted his head, questioning her.
“What is it, wife? Why do you weep? Have I caused you pain?”
She could no longer bear the feeling of his body against hers. And if he would scold her for her rejection, she did not care. She pushed at him, trying to move away.
“Leave me be. I beg you.”
It did not surprise her when he protested. His pride was wounded.
“I will not when you are in such a state. Tell me what I have done wrong!”
Her struggle was stronger then, and at last he consented, allowing her to move away. She turned her back on him, but she could feel his eyes examining her. Why could he not understand the misery he was causing her?
“You have been away, Edwin. You left me long ago, and now you return so suddenly, expecting me to act as your wife without hesitation. It is a duty I have forgotten how to perform.”
She wondered for a moment if he would be angry at her admission. But in that way of his – that quiet, almost cold way – he replied. Reaching out, he placed his hand on her shoulder.
“You will learn again,” he said. “It is something you must do.”
“And if I cannot? Will you hate me then?”
He moved away from her, lying back in the hay. Close, but not touching her. “No, I would never hate you. But you will learn to love me again, Cassia. We are husband and wife, for better or worse. In time, we will be as we once were.”
There was a softness to his voice. He had taken his pleasure, and now he was falling asleep. But just before he did, he made one last declaration.
“I failed to mention that Prince John comes to Nottingham on the morrow. We must attend a tourney held in his honor. It will be a day-long event, so rest well. Good night, Cassia.”
In a few moments he was asleep. She could tell by the sound of his breathing. And she buried her face in her hands, weeping.
Guy could not believe was he was hearing.
“I am to lose the match? Deliberately? For what purpose?”
The day-long tourney was to end in a battle of arms. And Guy was to fight against Prince John’s nephew. But it was to be a fixed bought, and he was not to be the victor. Briwere looked Guy up and down, as if there was nothing to question about the planned failure.
“It is to please his majesty, you fool. He champions his nephew, and I would see that our lord has his wishes met.”
Shaking his head, Guy tried to suppress the anger he felt. But it could not help showing in his voice.
“Why can you not find another to be your jester? Why must it be I who is publicly humiliated?”
“Because it is the will of the crowd, Gisborne. They will see the great demon of Nottingham taken down, and they will see their prince happy. Will you deny his majesty that?”
If he wished to live, he could not refuse the prince. In his life, he had no choices. Everything seemed to be set for him - and nothing was meant to see him happy. All that he hoped for, he seemed destined not to have. Cassia was but the latest loss. Perhaps it was better that her husband had returned to claim her, for she deserved a man who was respected and admired. What woman wanted to be with someone like Guy of Gisborne? A man that everyone despised?
He lowered his head, defeated already.
“I will do my duty, my lord.”
What did it matter, anyway? There was nothing that mattered anymore. Perhaps Prince John’s nephew would take his life from him quickly. At least in death, there would be peace.
Cassia was tired of the events of the day. Sitting beside Edwin, she endured one act of sport after another, feeling no interest at all except for when Stephen competed in a joust. He was unseated from his horse, which frightened her terribly, but he came back strong in the hand-to-hand combat, and emerged victorious. Other than his win, she could find no pleasure in anything. And her mind was occupied with troubling thoughts.
Where was Guy? Surely he would be competing in such an event. This would be one of the last times she might see him, and it was for that reason alone that she had consented to coming with Edwin. For one last time, she would see him on his mighty black steed, sitting so tall and strong in the saddle. She would take that image with her forever, clinging to it and to the memories of their brief time together. Reaching up, she wiped a tear from her cheek, her heart throbbing with pain.
Oh Guy, she thought, her heart breaking. If only you knew how much I love you.
She did love him, selfish and brooding beast that he was. He was the most difficult man, the most stubborn – and the most alluring. She knew that for the rest of her days, she would never have such feelings for another man. Not even the one she called her husband. But Guy was not hers to have. She belonged to another, and there was nothing that would change it.
It was near sunset, and at last the final event was before them. A battle of swordsmanship between Prince John’s nephew and an unnamed competitor. There was a wave of curious excitement through the crowd as the prince stood up in his box, raising his hands. And Cassia gasped when she heard Guy’s name announced.
Instantly there were boos and curses from the crowd. Many of them threw things at him as he entered the competition circle, and Cassia felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she watched the fight begin.
It seemed evenly matched for a time, as far as skill went. Neither seemed willing to relent, their swords and shields hammering away as the crowd wavered between joy and hate. But very quickly, Cassia sensed that something was not right. Guy was a large man, and very athletic. The prince’s nephew was tall, but not nearly as well-built. It seemed to her that Guy should have been able to best him easily, and yet, it appeared as though he struggled to keep up. Why was he not giving his all? She watched, eyes wide with attention, as the fight went on. Guy received a blow that drew blood from his arm, his chain-mail breaking under the strike of his opponent’s sword. They fought and struggled for some time, the crowd growing wild at the spectacle. And then the moment came. Cassia watched, horrified, as Guy received a blow that sent him to the ground. He lay still, not moving even when the prince’s nephew stood over him, his sword-tip placed on the back of Guy’s neck. The crowd roared in approval. The prince and the sheriff stood in the box, applauding wildly. And Cassia pressed her hands to her lips, trembling with despair.